When downtown-Reno business owners were told that city officials are working to revitalize the city’s deteriorating core, it was hard for some of them to hide their skepticism—or resist rolling their eyes.
They’ve heard it before. Every decade or so, a plan to invigorate the downtown “entertainment” district emerges. In the 1990s, resurfacing sidewalks with Italian paving stones was part of the formula; in 2007, North Virginia Street got wider sidewalks, narrowed traffic lanes and old-timey streetlight fixtures. No matter: Each year, more historic buildings dissolve into vacant lots, often with no hint of what might replace them. More businesses close and are boarded up. Vacant properties are the missing teeth in Reno’s aging smile.
A report notes that about 70 percent of the street frontage in the downtown core is vacant storefronts, false fronts, inactive plazas or windowless walls. The mega-hotels have sealed off access to large segments of Virginia Street, a thoroughfare once bustling with gaming parlors, shops and restaurants.
“(Downtown Reno) has become a ghost town,” said Gary Foote, owner of Harry’s Business Machines, at 323 West Street. His grandfather founded the business in 1928, and it’s one of the oldest in the city. Harry’s, also known as HBM Technology Partners, began as a typewriter store, but now sells, maintains and provides technical support for a wide range of office technologies.
In the 90-plus years that Foote’s family business has adapted to economic, social and technological challenges, the city’s core area became less nimble. From the 1930s to the 1960s, downtown Reno was the heart of the entertainment and gaming district. But in the 1970s, retailers and other small businesses moved to outlying parts of the city—a national trend. Gaming spread to other areas of the country in the 1980s, and the advent of Indian casinos in Northern California further eroded Reno’s Bay Area customer base. (See our accompanying story on downtown Reno’s history.)
By the 1990s, many smaller casino properties closed, and larger properties consolidated. Massive hotel-casinos towered above Reno’s downtown core, competing with gaming palaces that sprouted up in other parts of the Truckee Meadows. The hotel-casinos are self-contained cities within a city: Guests can have all their needs met without ever venturing out onto Virginia Street. Downtown stagnated.
“What we need is some kind of momentum,” Foote said. He noted that other Reno revitalization efforts, including the Riverwalk and Midtown’s pedestrian-friendly makeovers, have been successful. Those districts are “elbow to elbow” with downtown, but the renewed activity in those areas hasn’t spilled over to the city core.
“There are a lot of positive (changes) all around downtown,“ he said—but not in its center, where historic buildings often are razed, leaving vacant lots in their place. “In other downtown areas of the country, the buildings were vacant, but at least you have the bones of those stores, something to build on. That’s not the case here. … There are positive things going on, but the question is: How do you put all the positives together to build momentum for downtown?”
Connecting to a place
That’s the question the city and the Regional Transportation Commission are trying to answer with the current “placemaking” effort. Officials hope the project will result in a road map for the revitalization of the downtown area. Gehl Studios, an urban design and research consultant, has collected data, conducted surveys and hosted public meetings aimed at developing a “shared vision” for Reno’s downtown.
The goal is to create “an environment that is safe for people to work, live and play, develop public-private partnerships to foster a greater vision for the area (i.e. the Downtown Reno Partnership), and encourage certain types of development through zoning and incentives,” wrote Cassie Harris, the city of Reno’s communications program manager, in an email to the RN&R.
Foote, at the helm of one of downtown’s oldest businesses, was unaware of the placemaking study when interviewed in December. Sam Samir, the owner of North Virginia Street’s newest business, also hadn’t heard of the revitalization effort, but he welcomes anything that might increase pedestrian traffic downtown.
Samir’s Rice and Kabab restaurant opened in early December at 440 N. Virginia St., across the street from the Silver Legacy Resort Casino. That hotel-casino is the centerpiece of The ROW, a three-resort complex that includes 25 restaurants, 23 bars and lounges, 11 nightspots, a luxury spa, entertainment and more than 4,000 rooms and suites.
Most of the customers who came through the door of Samir’s restaurant during the first two weeks of business were casino employees, not tourists or local residents.
Rice and Kabab’s menu features Afghan cuisine, made with fresh lamb, chicken, vegetables and rice. “It’s different from Mediterranean, Middle Eastern or Indian food,” he said. “Most people here have never had this kind of food before. I thought being in the center of town, we’d not only get tourists, but local people who would be return customers.”
But walk-ins are rare, so he is expanding his options for takeout food, while hoping to gain more repeat patrons via word of mouth.
“It’s been slow,” Samir said. “We are open very late, after (many of) the casino restaurants have closed. It gets a little busier on weekends, but where are the people? We need a lot more foot traffic on Virginia Street. That would help us a lot. People need to get out of the casinos and see what else is available.”
Gehl, the city’s placemaking consultant, queried 2,700 community members about their perceptions of downtown, whether they go there, and why. The survey results, released in November, confirmed what Reno residents have known for decades: Except for special events, locals avoid downtown, because there are few things to do aside from gaming; homeless people wander the streets; and the city’s core is perceived as a high-crime area.
Dianna Sion, an artist who lives in the Riverside Hotel lofts on Virginia Street, told the RN&R last winter that she avoids walking in the downtown area late at night. Her apartment window gives her a seagull’s-eye view of Virginia Street and Reno City Plaza. After dark, she said, unsheltered people and drug addicts “run the streets”; she often hears gunshots and sees altercations.
“It’s just not safe at night,” she said.
One of the goals of Reno’s revitalization effort is getting more people to live in and around downtown. There are now about 6,000 residents in the business and entertainment district, according to the Downtown Reno Partnership. The Reno City Center project, at the site of what was Harrah’s, is expected to soon add another 550 apartments to the area. Other proposed developments would attract 1,500 tenants over the next three years, with another 1,500 three years after that.
“When you get 8,000, 9,000, 10,000 people living there, that’s when you reach critical mass,” said Nathan Digangi, economic development manager for the Downtown Reno Partnership. “That’s when retailers start talking about the downtown area.”
That’s the rub: Retailers need to see a customer base before they invest in an area, but prospective residents want to live near grocery stores, shops and entertainment venues—while walking in a safe neighborhood.
It’s a “chicken and egg” dilemma, said Chris Shanks, who owns Louis’ Basque Corner, which occupies the first floor of a hotel, built in 1908, at 301 E. Fourth St. He also owns The Depot Craft Brewery and Distillery in the renovated railroad depot at 325 E. Fourth St., which was built in 1910. Those businesses are part of an effort to reinvigorate East Fourth Street, another formerly neglected district on the edge of downtown.
“I’m optimistic,” Shanks said. “I hope for more of a resident base, more interaction with the (University of Nevada, Reno), more programming of some of our event spaces downtown, and getting more locals to visit downtown—just more activity that would be beneficial for all businesses down there.
“I think Gehl’s doing a pretty good job of laying some framework, but in the end, it’s going to have to be generated by residents, by people living downtown.”
Without those residents, Shanks said, “no one is going to bring in a grocery store; no retailers are going to come in. So, really, people being willing to live downtown needs to be the driver of getting more people downtown.”
More people in the area would have a “cascade effect,” he said. “We’re not going to get a Whole Foods, Trader Joe’s or a Sprouts downtown without more people living there.”
Shanks understands long-time residents may be skeptical of another downtown renovation scheme. Previous efforts, he said, ran afoul of “terrible market timing. Every time we start gaining momentum, we hit an economic crisis,” including the bursting of the dot-com bubble in 2000, the 2008 recession, and the COVID-19 pandemic hitting in 2020. “We get going, and then the rug gets pulled out from underneath us, and we start from scratch again,” Shanks said.
Still, he said, “We’ve been slowly chipping away at (fixing) downtown my whole life. I was in school in 2004, and it wasn’t as nice as it is now. We’re going in the right direction, but not as fast as we would like. … The hope is that stakeholders downtown, (and the) RTC, will really step up and make some of these changes.”
‘Clean and safe’ streets
The city is using code enforcement to crack down on businesses that often show up in police reports, or are violating city building codes. On West Fourth Street, some of the city’s weekly-rental motels closed—and were later demolished—after repeatedly being cited for violations of city regulations. Some of those sites remain vacant lots. In December, the City Council declined to renew the liquor licenses of two Virginia Street stores, citing a frequency of police calls and safety issues.
In both cases, the business and property owners accused the city of selective enforcement—using the city code violations as a weapon to get rid of businesses it doesn’t like—an accusation officials deny. They said that public safety is their prime concern, and that city officials treat all businesses equally. Even so, the strict code enforcement often results in more shuttered businesses and vacant lots.
“This whole notion of knocking things down without building anything in their place is the idea that something looks bad, and having nothing there is better,” said Alicia Barber, a professional historian who keeps track of Reno development issues on her Substack, The Barber Brief. She noted that some council members hailed the liquor-license rejections as the dawn of “a new day downtown” and vowed to continue targeting “bad actors.”
Reno spokeswoman Cassie Harris said the city’s goal in enforcing code violations is to provide “a safe shopping experience for all customers, as well as a safe environment for neighboring residents, businesses, public-transit riders and the community at large.” By mitigating the high calls for police service and crime around those two convenience-store locations, she said, “residents and visitors may be more inclined to frequent them, as they feel safer throughout the area.”
In addition, she noted, prospective businesses may be more inclined to open a storefront in a cleaner and safer area, “creating a more vibrant downtown. … Our hope is that with a safer downtown, more businesses will thrive, and more activity is likely to occur.” City staff, she said, will develop “a proactive plan to drive storefront activation and attract business activity into the downtown core. … We are going to go out and target businesses to bring in.”
Those spaces will remain inactive while the city comes up with plans and works on crafting a shared vision. In the end, though, property owners, not city officials, control those parcels and will set the course for downtown’s future.
The ROW, owned by Caesars Entertainment, is the largest property owner. The ROW didn’t respond to the RN&R’s multiple requests for comment about the placemaking project, and it had no representatives at Gehl’s November focus-group session for downtown businesses. However, a letter sent by The ROW to the Regional Transportation District in 2021 outlines its wish list. Those suggestions included creating sidewalk enhancements on Virginia Street between the university and the Truckee River, similar to what was done in Midtown; putting protected bicycle lanes on Virginia Street rather than Center Street; creating more open plazas for special events near its property; and creating a lot more parking places downtown—in open concrete areas, on streets and in underground structures.
The problem is that plazas become more empty, inactive space when special events are over, Barber said. “When will Caesars tell us what they will do, not just with properties they not only own, but also have indicated they really want, like the old bus-station site?” she asked. “What are they doing? All we know is what they want the city to do for them.
“So you have the largest property and business owner downtown clearly still interested in acquiring property, and can do it,” Barber said. “So what is their intent? Without knowing that, the city can’t make any plans. They need to be up front about that. I don’t think anyone is demanding that of them.”
Some of those who attended Gehl’s focus groups were optimistic about the placemaking effort.
Jory Mack, whose family owns Palace Jewelry and Loan, a pawn shop at 300 N. Virginia St., said the session he attended was a forum for ideas, including suggestions that “sounded really good.” He gave Gehl high marks for listening to stakeholder proposals.
“It went a lot better than I expected,” Mack said. “Unlike when I talk to (some city officials), what I said didn’t fall on deaf ears.”
Shanks said he has confidence in Gehl’s process of getting stakeholders together.
“We can hear grievances and get as much information as we can,” he said. “We want everyone in on the conversation and at the table working on solutions. There will be some people who may pooh-pooh everything, but at least they get their voice heard.”
He encourages Reno business owners and residents to get involved and to stay informed. “In this day and age, a lot of people may base their thinking on a headline, when actually, it needs a deeper dive,” he said.
Piper Stremmel, who owns The Jesse boutique hotel at 306 E. Fourth St. and just reopened Abby’s Highway 40 bar at 424 E. Fourth St., said Shanks’ businesses and others along what was formerly Reno’s major highway are proof that small businesses can activate a formerly depressed district. She noted that visitors to her hotel usually patronize other businesses on Fourth Street or make the trip to Midtown, even though the downtown core is just three blocks away.
“East Fourth Street is more of a localized area,” Stremmel said. “… Business owners see its potential. The small businesses are within proximity to each other, and people can go from bar to bar, to restaurants and retail.” That’s the sort of formula that can renew downtown, she said.
Anonymous GPS location data from the last 18 months show that, based on zip code IDs, out-of-town visitors venture beyond the downtown hotels more than some people assume. The Downtown Reno Partnership’s analysis of that data—purchased from a company that compiles information from cell phones and other portable electronic devices—indicates that, on average, Midtown gets 40% of its visitors from outside the Reno area. At the Riverwalk, the percentage is 46%, and the Brewery District gets 36% of visitors from afar. On Virginia Street, the data show a mix of 36% locals and 64% out-of-towners walking in the city’s core.
Stremmel said Midtown, East Fourth Street and the Riverwalk have the vitality residents would like to see in the downtown core. A wide-angle view of the city, with downtown at its center, she said, shows “such promising little areas within it, these tight concentrations. You see the pockets forming, but I don’t know how they can be connected.”
The ROW: the elephant in the room
Creating a web of human connections—among a city’s history and culture, commerce and character—is at the heart of the placemaking effort, officials and stakeholders said.
Gehl, Barber said, is working hard to fulfill its mission to come up with a road map to a better downtown. Property owners will drive any changes, she noted—but The ROW, now silent, is the most powerful force in the district.
“What will Caesars Entertainment do to be more responsible for its impact to the surrounding area?” she asked.
Setting aside more open concrete plazas and making cosmetic changes to sidewalks, she said, won’t transform the area without a diversity of businesses that will attract visitors and locals. Downtown is already being transformed “one demolition at a time,” Barber said. “… Who will matter in the new vision of downtown? Who are the people you are trying to make it a better place for?”
The placemaking study raises larger questions, including whether the downtown area is still the center of the city. “It’s no longer a thriving downtown or the main casino district anymore, with gaming disbursed all over town,” Barber said. “It remains important because of the Reno Arch and its history as the city center…. It doesn’t have a particular identity or a single role for the city anymore.”
Gehl is scheduled to present its placemaking findings and design suggestions at another public meeting in February that will kick off the “engineering phase” of the project.
“(The goal) is a shared community vision that represents what our community is looking for downtown,” said Amy Pennington, a city of Reno spokeswoman. “We’re trying to create a roadmap so we’re all moving in the same direction. … Everyone is in their own lane right now, and those lanes have to come together for Reno to grow and improve. Residents love Reno; we want to have that (Virginia Street) stretch be something they love, too.”